Season preview with Chris Grover. USA Cross Country Program Director. Part I –

USA Cross Country Program Director Chris Grover (US Ski Team photo).

Chris Grover is the director of the US cross-country program, a position he has held for three years. He sat down with FasterSkier’s Ken Roth to discuss the upcoming World Cup season and an overview of the US schedule.

What exactly is the job of program director?

I oversee all aspects of the program for team development, coach education, events, budgets, selection criteria and all other staff. This includes technicians, volunteer physiotherapists, volunteer doctors, sports psychologists and skiers. We have six full-time employees, plus skiers. We have six World Cup technicians who are seasonal, plus three part-time contract employees who work domestically. We are relatively small, so all of us coaches have to be able to do it all. I’m going with the team to Europe and I’m going back and forth a bit to get home.

That’s a surprisingly small number of full-time employees. How does this compare to Norway and other countries? How can you do it all with such a small full-time staff?

It’s hard to compare to Norway as it is light years ahead in terms of size and budget. Their budget is probably ten times ours. For example, they have 98 athletes on their team (national and regional) compared to our 22 (teams A, B and D). Russia, Sweden and Finland are also larger. Our size is similar to many central European countries like Italy, France and Germany. But some of these countries have links with the military, police or border guards, which gives them additional support.

What other challenges does the American team face compared to the Europeans?

One of our big challenges is that our cost to compete in the winter is high because our team never really goes home. We are on the non-stop route. Europeans save money because during the week they live at home. They will arrive just before the weekend and leave after the weekend. This saving allows them to invest in additional staff. We don’t have the same resources for coaching.

Do you have a lot of volunteer staff and part-time staff during your stay in Europe?

We rely 100% on volunteer doctors to travel with us. Most physiotherapists and massage therapists are volunteers. Volunteers literally take their own vacation time to be with us. In the case of doctors, they even pay their fees! It’s an amazing gift. We only have one person on our medical team who is not a volunteer. All our technicians are seasonal employees.

What does it take to bring the team to Europe and compete non-stop for four months? What supports are in place for athletes?

It is a huge task. The real change for us is that the size of the program has grown over the past 15 years. In 2006, we would have six employees and maybe seven to eight athletes. Now we have 16-20 athletes, with 11-15 employees. So the logistics really grew. We will start this year with 16 athletes and about 15 employees for each World Cup start. Most of them are technicians and a few coaches. We also have a physiotherapist, a doctor, a physical trainer and sometimes a sports psychologist. This year we will also have a coach from the Trail to Gold Fellowship (a National Nordic Foundation program that offers promising female coaches from the United States the opportunity to gain world-class coaching experience at the World Cup ).

How do you help the athlete maintain their intensity during this long period on the road?

We work with a sports psychologist who the athletes have access to. It’s a key support mechanism. It’s very individual too. Our veteran athletes have figured out what works for them. For some, it comes back to the United States in the middle of the season. Others stay in Europe and bring their families, which has been very difficult during Covid. Hopefully this year will be more normal.

We are also creating more family-friendly living situations on the road rather than in hotels. It is very important psychologically. It also helps us improve the food we eat.

But this is a huge disadvantage for non-European countries. Everyone else can go home to recharge, but we can’t.

The US Ski Team has become known as a traveling family, attributing much of its success to the supportive atmosphere created by athletes, coaches and staff members. That dynamic is evident in this celebration of Jessie Diggins’ Olympic silver medal in the 30k mass start (Photo: NordicFocus)

The women’s team is well known for its team dynamics and team culture. Are you trying to develop leadership and team dynamics, or let it develop organically?

A bit of both, depending on who is on the team in a given year. We don’t have team captains, and that’s on purpose. We try to create an atmosphere where everyone can sometimes lead. Everyone is good at something, we have to bring it out. We’ve had an incredible women’s team culture at times. Sometimes we had to work to maintain it.

Right now we also have an incredible men’s team culture led by this younger generation coming into the national team that has had great success at the world junior level. The current group is made up of great friends and training partners who want to see each other succeed. So it’s more about maintaining what you have rather than trying to create something.

Ben Ogden, pictured here racing Stage 3 of the 2021/22 Tour de Ski in Oberstdorf, is one of many up-and-coming American skiers whose international experience is starting to pay off. (Photo: NordicFocus)

The men have gained experience. Are they at the point where they can now maximize their potential?

Last year, for many of them, was their first time in many venues. Of the six men at the Olympics, five were first-time Olympians. They have just been themselves. The future is very promising.

So men still need more experience?

For sure. They are still growing, still learning, still building their training bases. Many of them are still finishing their studies. Some are still in NCAA racing, and the majority are still U23 (under 23). Many will take time off from the World Cup to return for the U23 Championships in Whistler, British Columbia.

The Tour de Ski, which takes place at the height of the season, requires enormous energy expenditure. Do you plan in advance how to run the Tour de Ski, or do the athletes and coaches wait to be there and see how they are doing?

It is individual; and the United States are a bit different. Individual athletes are mostly coached by individual coaches or club coaches, with the exception of Jessie Diggins. We do this because they spend the vast majority of their time with these coaches. We only held three training camps this summer and fall.

In this system, there are many individual plans. National team staff help advise how best to manage planning. Of the 22 different athletes, there will be 22 different plans.

This year, the FIS (International Ski and Snowboard Federation) has added a rest weekend before the Tour and a rest weekend after the Tour. So that will help. FIS tries to encourage all superstars to be at all races, so they try to create better breaks.

Some athletes will be waiting to see how the first few weeks of the World Cup unfold. I think there will be a large group of athletes returning home after the tour.

With only three training camps, what is the opportunity to be on the snow out of season?

We had a training camp in May at Mt. Batchelor which is a great snow camp. We had a few other opportunities in Australia and in a ski tunnel. A big challenge is that Eagle Glacier (Alaska) has been closed for three years. A number of our athletes from Alaska would use it, so losing it is a big challenge.

Also, the New Zealand snow farm may be permanently closed, and we have been using this facility forever. It’s a huge loss. In addition, the decrease in snow accumulation on European glaciers is a problem. On the snow, the opportunities dry up.

We generally prefer to avoid tunnels. They are only 1.2k and you get bored easily. It’s much nicer to be outside. You can’t do week after week in a tunnel like you can outside.

Julia Kern placed 20th in sprint qualifying at the 2018 World Cup in Planica. She looks set to do much better this winter when the World Championships return to Slovenia. (Photo: NordicFocus)

The World Championships will take place for the first time in Planica, Slovenia. Do you need to spot it or do you know it well enough? Are there any specific changes to training in a World Championship year?

No, we don’t need to spot it. We have been there several times. I’ve been there since 2001. We did a lot of sprints there, not as many distance races. But we have done distance races there over the years, having raced on the main distance course. It’s a compact set of courses, and usually not a ton of snow. This will likely be a 5k loop for most runs.

We have a good situation. We are going to live in Italy, just across the border.

In terms of preparation, it’s not high altitude, so it’s manageable. Being late February, early March, I expect warmer conditions. It will therefore be necessary to use strategies to keep the riders cool, as we have done in the last two world championships. We are starting to prepare for warmer conditions during the summer. Jessie in particular worked with this; but I can’t go into details.

It will be a battle to understand the structure of the ski if we have sloppy, wet and dirty snow conditions. Fingers crossed for more traditional winter temperatures.

Any goals you can share for this season?

For Jessie and Rosie, both are focused on spending the whole year in Europe. It will be different for Rosie compared to last year. Both are hyper-focused on chasing the World Cup and World Championships.

Among the men, the youngest want to go to the U23 championships. They see it as a great opportunity to be in Whistler. It’s a bit of home advantage. Much of the focus of the year will be on this. Beyond that, he is making incremental steps onto the World Cup and World Championships.

How have athletes coped with not having fans over the past two years?
For the most part, everyone missed the fans. The mood suffered without fans. It was really nice to see the fans coming back.

Stay tuned for Part II of Fastskier’s interview with Chris Grover. In the next segment, we’ll talk about the Russian ban, equal gender distances, and fluoros, among other things.


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